By John Allwood. Originally published on 2013/04/14

Soon after the mass uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) broke out, Western commentators lauded the situation as the first steps towards the triumph of democracy. Supported by European and US rhetoric about the right to self-determination, the ‘Arab Spring’ was supposed to sweep through the region, toppling authoritarian rulers and establishing fair and accountable governments in their place. Except that hasn’t quite happened – just ask a Shia Bahraini, or a secular Egyptian. Or an Algerian. Or a Syrian.

Where has Europe been in all this? The turmoil on the continent’s doorstep – let’s not forget almost all the Arab and Sahel countries are European Neighbourhood ‘Partners’ – could hardly have come at a worse time for EU leaders, whose own problems have unsurprisingly stolen the limelight. This said, the EU has not ignored the events and has tried to provide assistance. Despite lazy press comparisons to 1989, similarities between then and now are few and far between, and so Europe can give little help based on its own experiences; it has therefore worked hard to proffer encouragement, expertise and money.

What has the EU done so far?

On the 8th February, just over two years since the start of the uprisings, the EU released its report on the ‘state-of-play’ in the region, a 10-page document describing support given to each country. Stressing the “deep connection with politics” that economic matters have on the very first page certainly sets the tone. But while cynics and eurosceptics cry that the EU doesn’t want to get properly involved and instead just throws money at the region, the EU’s approach is astute. It is crucial to bear in mind that economic grievances were what started the protests – daily bread, rather than day-to-day liberties, was the chief concern and it was when popular dissent snowballed that opposition and pro-democracy groups seized the opportunity. The EU is therefore absolutely right to pursue economic goals, the success of which will be favourable to political development.

Hundreds of millions of euros in grants will be made available to MENA countries as part of the SPRING programme, which rewards democratic progress with cash. Whether this will work is not certain – a Commission review of the ENP in 2010 made clear that while the EU is good at promoting sectoral reform, promoting democratic reform has proved a much harder task. Therefore, the EU should not be afraid to shout about its economic assistance programmes, which sound far more useful in a world where talk of millions and billions no longer causes awe to the average citizen.

The newly-launched European Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD) is a stellar example of such a scheme. Aimed at modernising and expanding agricultural production through tailored dialogues, there is much promise for efficiency gains in the sector that is so uniformly important across the region. A similar scheme proved to be beneficial during the accession of member states in Eastern Europe. As well as having the potential to promote bottom-up economic growth through increased incomes for farmers, the programme could also alleviate subsistence concerns. What is more, higher agricultural competition will hardly be well-received by European farms so it can be seen as somewhat of a selfless move by the EU. Negotiations over a free-trade area are set to commence this year, which may see the reduction of barriers to agricultural trade among the terms.

Challenges and accomplishments

The EU has come under fire from pressure-groups, charities and even Home Affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström for its handling of the migration issue in the wake of civil unrest across the Arab world, though this is unwarranted. Unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers fled north, including 1 million escaping the bloodshed in Syria; 185,000 of these are camped on the EU’s doorstep in Turkey.

The issue here is far from one of simple EU policy. The intergovernmental nature of the Union in the area of migration means that sensitive migration motions are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pass. After Italy gave temporary residence visas to migrants in April 2011 France reacted with fury, temporarily stopping all trains crossing the Franco-Italian border. Whether or not this was a direct violation of the Schengen agreement is open to question (reinstating border controls is only possible in the case of a “serious threat to public security”) but the episode serves to highlight the severe tensions felt by member states. In a climate of growing euroscepticism it would have been a PR disaster for the EU to call for an influx of unskilled migrants on grounds of compassion. Besides, migrants entering the EU and sending money to their relatives back home would not be a long-term solution to the economic problems in the MENA region. At best, it would slow down progress, at worst, cause a ‘brain drain’ of highly-educated, highly-skilled workers flocking to Europe. Far more useful are programmes which help cultivate the region’s human resources. An example is Erasmus Mundus, the EU’s student exchange programme with third countries, to which funding has recently been increased.

Finally, the ‘State of Play’ report makes several references to stimulation of the private sector, a shrewd move and one that will address one of the MENA region’s most damaging shortcomings. In many countries private development is hampered by large state power in business, a lack of integration in global markets and red tape acting as a barrier to entry for new firms. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which is largely financed by the EU and the European Investment Bank, will play a key role in remedying this. Of course, it will be hard to eradicate the cronyism that is commonplace, but “cautious privatisation” (the words of EBRD president Thomas Mirow) and trade promotion, in conjunction with the variety of other policies outlined previously, should allow MENA economies to finally get off the ground and give countries more fertile ground for democratic growth.

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